Last revised: February 18, 2012
My Core Convictions:
Nonviolence and the Christian Faith
Part V — Ecumenism, Inter-Religious Relations, and the Perspective of the Victim
5 I have saved for the end what is perhaps the most controversial aspect of René Girard‘s thesis. Girard has continued to argue for the uniqueness of the Judeo-Christian Scriptures in general and for the Christian Gospel in particular.1 His work renews the meaning of Peter’s bold claim in Acts 4:12: “There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved.” Hopefully, the reader by now has a good sense for answering the question we raised near the outset of this essay (Part I, §1.7), “Why is Christ’s submission to an act of human violence necessary for our salvation?” In a nutshell, we might answer: because our human entrenchment in idolatry of sacred violence is so steadfast that only God’s submission to it in Jesus Christ, followed by the powerful, life-giving event of Resurrection, could begin to break the hold.
5.1 In short, the Cross alone does not win our salvation. It is only with the Resurrection that our salvation is truly launched. In the conclusion of I See Satan Fall Like Lightning, Girard writes:
During the Passion, the little group of Jesus’ last faithful followers was already more than half-possessed by the violent contagion against Jesus. Where did they suddenly find the strength to oppose the crowd and the Jerusalem authorities? How do we explain this turnabout so contrary to all we have learned of the irresistible power of mimetic escalation?Until now I have always been able to find plausible responses to the questions posed in this book within a purely commonsensical and “anthropological” context. This time, however, it is impossible. To break the power of mimetic unanimity, we must postulate a power superior to violent contagion. If we have learned one thing in this study, it is that none exists on the earth. It is precisely because violent contagion was all-powerful in human societies, prior to the day of the Resurrection, that archaic religion divinized it. Archaic societies are not as stupid as we tend to think. They had good reasons to mistake violent unanimity for divine power.
The Resurrection is not only a miracle, a prodigious transgression of natural laws. It is the spectacular sign of the entrance into the world of a power superior to violent contagion. By contrast to the latter it is a power not at all hallucinatory or deceptive. Far from deceiving the disciples, it enables them to recognize what they had not recognized before and to reproach themselves for their pathetic flight in the preceding days. They acknowledge the guilt of their participation in the violent contagion that murdered their master. (pp. 188-189)
5.2 And it is the uniqueness of the Resurrection of Christ that also accounts for the unique place of the faith in the Resurrected Crucified One.
5.2.1 It should first be acknowledged that such claims for uniqueness have become scandalous in the modern context of inter-religious dialogue — and for good reason. Beyond mere acknowledgment, modern Christians are often called to sorrowful repentance for the sacred violence done in the name of Christ throughout the centuries. Rather than save us from our anthropological predilection for sacred violence, the cross of Christ, interpreted sacrificially,2 has too often been our banner over some of history’s worst offenses of sacred violence — especially those against Jews. When Jesus voices condemnation as he does in Matthew 11:21-22 [“Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the deeds of power done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. But I tell you, on the day of judgment it will be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon than for you.”] it speaks to the crimes of Christians throughout the ages. For Jesus is basically saying, ‘You are the ones who have heard my message and claim to believe. You should know better! It will be worse for you on the day of judgment than for those of far-off lands who never heard and claimed to take it to heart.’
5.2.2 But this only makes evangelical anthropology more urgent, for it makes crystal clear the direct betrayal of the Gospel whenever any sacred violence is done in the name of Christ. Yes, it claims uniqueness for faith in the Resurrected Crucified One but never as a banner of violence to hold over other faiths.
5.2.3 We have also already argued against the sacrificial interpretation of the cross which has been a key to Christians sacralizing their violence. See §3.1 above on traditional doctrines of atonement; I recommend again the webpage “The Anthropology of René Girard and Traditional Doctrines of Atonement.”
5.2.4 Finally, the most important point here is the one which makes for the sub-heading (§5.2): the uniqueness of the Resurrection of Christ. For the claim here is primarily for its uniqueness as a historical event, and only secondarily as an event which creates a certain brand of faith. This is not a triumphalistic claim of one religion over all others. It is not even a religious claim, in an anthropological sense, if we stand by our anthropological thesis that all human religions are infected with sacred violence. Christianity as a religion in history has decidedly put an exclamation point on the truth of that proposition. But if we can entertain the Resurrection of Christ as a unique event in history, in distinction from the history of Christendom, then hopefully an inter-religious dialogue can take the shape more of a scientific conversation than of the next prelude to war.
5.3 In what sense do we claim the Resurrection of Christ as a unique event in history? Our answer: as not simply the survival of the victim’s perspective on sacred violence, but as the resurrection of the victim’s perspective — and specifically as forgiveness, not vengeance! As resurrected to an eternal life, the Victim’s perspective on sacred violence is an ongoing force in history that goes by the name, in John’s Gospel, of Paraclete. René Girard’s work has made more clear the interpretation of the notoriously mysterious title of Paraclete — namely, as the opposite of Satan and the satanic powers in this world. The Satan is the Accuser. The Paraclete is the Defender of the Accused. Scholars have been aware of this Greek word being titular, but evangelical anthropology finally makes John’s reason for using it clear. See the webpage “The Anthropology of René Girard and the Paraclete of St. John.”
5.4 What evangelical anthropology helps bring to light is that the victim’s perspective on violence will always play a unique role in history. Andrew McKenna states that “the matrix of difference is the victim.”3
5.4.1 The ordinary matrix by which we humans live is the perspective of the perpetrators of collective violence against victims. Human enslavement to the perpetrator’s perspective of sacred violence is at the foundation of all human culture. With the perpetrator’s perspective penetrating everywhere to things human, it is the victim’s perspective which is truly unique.
5.4.2 Behind the anthropological predilections against the victim’s perspective, there is a very practical, quasi-historical reason: namely, the victim is shunned and often killed. In the ancient world, the role of music during ritual sacrifice was often to drown out any cries from the victim.4 It is crucial that the victim not be heard. The practical mechanics of making victims means that it is unusual for the victim’s perspective to survive. In the world of ancient ritual it was probably impossible.
5.5 In general, then, the survival of the victim’s perspective is highly unusual as a historical phenomenon — until more recent history, that is, when the victim’s perspective has finally established a beachhead in Western culture, namely, the cultures most often in closest contact with the Gospel (more on this below). (And it must be emphasized that the close contact is in the category of being an accident of history and not by any meritorious claims for Western culture. In short, the perspective of the victim has established a place in Western culture not because of any inherent merit in Western culture but because of the historical accident of being in close proximity to the Gospel over a long period of time.)
5.5.1 Which raises the important question: Under what kind of historical conditions could the perspective of the victim survive?
5.5.2 Proposal: under the kinds of conditions endured by Yahweh’s chosen people, the Jews, over centuries of maintaining an identity despite being trampled upon by every other empire in that part of the world. Isn’t their identity as a people, in fact, unique, precisely by virtue of maintaining a strong national identity not by being great conquerors but by being conquered? Moreover, their identity was initially forged as a liberated slave people in their exodus out of Egypt.
5.5.3 This is not to say that the victim’s perspective is on display everywhere in the Hebrew scriptures. Girard has called them a “text in travail,” that is to say, a text struggling to finally and clearly give voice to the victim in history. The Suffering Servant Song of Isaiah 53 is but a pinnacle in this long, excruciating process in history of the victim’s voice becoming heard — which then becomes an interpretative hermeneutic to read back through Israel’s own history, even its de-mythologizing interpretation of pre-history. For example: contrary to the founding Roman myth in which Romulus is justified in murdering his brother Remus, Yahweh confronts Cain as having heard the voice of his murdered brother’s blood cry out from the ground. Talk about hearing the voice of the victim! Taken as a whole, then, Girard argues that the Bible presents us with a matrix of the victim’s perspective the extent to which cannot be found in any other text.
5.5.4 The Resurrection of the Jewish Messiah, as proclaimed by the Jewish followers of Jesus of Nazareth, thus fulfills this process of the victim’s perspective coming to light. James Alison calls it the “intelligence of the victim” (see the webpage “James Alison on ‘The Intelligence of the Victim’“). It is the clarity of this intelligence of the victim which, from the perspective of evangelical anthropology, Christians may claim as unique.
5.6 But does uniqueness mean that Christians have a monopoly on this perspective of victims? By no means. And that means another crucial opening for inter-religious dialogue.
5.6.1 Beginning with Christian inter-faith dialogue with our Jewish brothers and sisters, they, of course, have a firm foundation from which to talk — the foundation, in fact, for the Christian faith itself. The Cross and Resurrection only make sense within the matrix of the Hebrew Scriptures, in the first place. And the Christian betrayal of the Gospel, in the form of anti-Semitic sacred violence, gives evidence to the fact that the Jewish people have continued to more faithfully live out the call of Yahweh to be on the side of victims. In the horrifying aftermath of the Holocaust, many Jews are heard to cry out, “If this is what it means to be the chosen people, then please, God, choose someone else.” Is this an echo of Jesus’ prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane to take his cup of suffering away? Yet this would seem to be the strange truth of history: namely, that the true God calls the victims of violence to let their voices be heard, and promises through Jesus Christ that their voices will not only be heard but will finally determine the end of history, when God’s peace will be all-in-all.
5.6.2 American Indians and African-Americans might tragically provide another historical example of peoples whose faith in God has been shaped by centuries of being oppressed — again, mostly by people calling themselves Christians whose perspective has obviously lapsed into that of the perpetrators. Such oppression, it might be argued, has led many native Americans to interpret their ‘pagan’ religions more truly according to the perspective of the victim than did the Christians who perpetrated such systemic, institutional violence against them. Many contemporary people are finding more spiritual truth on the reservations than in many of the churches.
5.7 In general, Christian inter-faith dialogue with other world religions can proceed with an openness to explaining and then exploring the “intelligence of the victim” in other religious traditions. It can also share and commiserate with other religious traditions how easy it is to fall into the anthropological ‘default position’ of the perspective of the persecutors. Christians can be honest about the ways in which it has persecuted other faiths in its long history, while, at the same time, offering a picture of how the Resurrected Christ establishes a history of the “intelligence of the victim” in world history. Can much of this be done in a spirit of a scientific exploration of history?
5.8 A similar approach can be made with ecumenical, inter-denominational dialogue. As one of the most violently persecuted of the developing Protestant churches, did the Mennonites, for example, gain the victim’s truth about such violence? Evangelical anthropology can help us to understand our history of inter-church conflict, and to serve as a basis for living the answer to our Lord’s prayer to his Father in Heaven “so that they may be one, as we are one” (John 17:11). It is imperative, after such a long history of schism, that the Church of Christ find new ways to live its sacramental calling of being a presence of Holy Communion in the midst of this world of unholy communions — in other words, that same dynamic of John 17 of being sent into the world but not belonging to the world.
1. Girard‘s recent book I See Satan Fall Like Lightning has consecutive chapters (chs. 9-11) titled “The Uniqueness of the Bible,” “The Uniqueness of the Gospels,” and “The Triumph of the Cross.”
2. René Girard himself began early-on to write about the consequences of Christendom’s falling back into a sacrificial interpretation of the cross. See especially Book II, Chapter 3 of Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World, a chapter entitled “The Sacrificial Reading [of the Gospel] and Historical Christianity.” Anthony Bartlett‘s book, Cross Purposes: The Violent Grammar of Christian Atonement, elaborates on this Girard’s thesis of a sacrificial reading, showing how Anselm’s doctrine of atonement in Cur Deus Homo? was not just coincidently written as the Western Church was gearing up for the First Crusade.
3. Andrew McKenna, Violence and Difference, 218.
4. The Greek verb myo means to close the mouth or shut the eyes. There is debate about whether myo plays a crucial role in the etymology of other significant words such as myth, mystery, and even music. These etymologies make sense within the Girardian hypotheses. Myth means to close ourselves to the victim and tell the tale according to the perpetrator’s perspective; mystery cults are based on the silence of the victims; music derives from drowning out the voice of the victim.